15 July 2014

And now, for something completely different: what of Vermaelen?

Earlier Monday, I went for something risqué and unpredictable, something difficult to pull off or understand even if I did pull it off—a little bit of satire, flogging those who flog Özil. Depending on whom you ask, I succeeded or failed in equally spectacular parts. The post in question was either too subtle to get or too straightforward to miss. I tend to side with the latter camp. Some folks prefer their satire to be more of the slap-stick variety, akin to a cold cod across the kisser. So be it. And now, for something completely different: a sincere, perhaps maudlin examination of the plight of Vermaelen, erstwhile captain and tarrying Tom.

What went wrong? The love-child of Jude Law and Joaquin Phoenix had gotten off to such a splendid start, scoring in his debut and adding a brace just a few weeks later. However, even in those early, heady days, there were omens, an own-goal against Chelsea chief among them. Then came the injury troubles. Once he recovered from those, the goals came again, both for and against Arsenal. Eventually, his form suffered so much that he was dropped, at first temporarily, and then permanently, as the Koscielny-Mertesacker axis evolved and solidified. Through it all, Vermaelen has taken it on the chin, never once grumbling (at least so far as I can find) about his demotion. One can probably count on one's willie the number of clubs whose captain rides the bench week in, week out.

At one level, he was a proto-typical Wengerian player: forward-thinking and aggressive, if difficult to commit to a formal position. Wengerball, borrowing as it does from total football, depends on players confident enough to get out of those formal positions and to trade positions with each other almost as often as they pass the ball to each other. Vermaelen, as a center-back, has been so often guilty of bombing forward (whether that's a commitment to a philosophy or a personality flaw is another question) that he's been accused of being a midfielder in disguise: "should Vermaelen be converted to DM?" is a question almost as persistent as "will Arsenal sign anyone in this transfer window?"

As with most prototypes, his flaws are just as front-and-center as are his features. Yes, his aerial abilities have amazed. Yes, he can score a timely goal. Then again, he's too often caught out of position. He has a strange proclivity for whiffs and gaffes. Under the pressure cooker that is the Prem, there is simply no time to work out the kinks. As such, Vermaelen's flaws and weaknesses have ultimately proven to be too much to bear. Despite continuing to wear the captain's arm-band, he's become at best a squad-level player, getting most of his playing time in the early rounds of the league cup and FA Cup or thanks to injuries or fatigue to starters. In fact, some of his best work has come not as a center-back but as a left-back, where in the 4-2-3-1 played both by Arsenal and Belgium, he's had a bit less responsibility and a bit more freedom to get forward, a role that might play to his strengths.

However, the bloom is apparently off the rose. It wasn't so long ago that the likes of Barcelona were sniffing around to see if Vermaelen was available. Now, unfortunately, it's only second-tier clubs like Man U and Napoli who are inquiring, and at prices barely higher than what Arsenal paid for him in 2009. Even in inflation-adjusted terms, that's a damning indictment. Compared with other players who have come and gone, and whose value has risen dramatically, Vermaelen's failure to boost his status is a bit of a disappointment, to put it mildly.

He's a bit of a 'tweener, a player caught between two or more positions. His size suggests that he play center-back; his mentality suggests that he play on the side. Sadly, the fate of most tweeners is to go by the wayside, even in a formation as ostensibly fluid as is Wenger's. It's been apparent for the last 20 months or so that Vermaelen's future may lie elsewhere. If that proves to be Man U, so be it, but let it be known that their need to purchase him exceeds our need to sell him. Perhaps they can offer Chris Smalling or Jonny Evans as makeweight?